Ever been baffled by a French phrase? I have. The first one we heard was on the day Le Domaine du Palizac became ours.
Although we weren’t due at the house until the day after we signed the contract, we couldn’t wait a minute longer. We left the Notaire’s office and set off on a sunny September afternoon, arriving later at our very own French home.
The drive was choc a bloc with removal vans, furniture items and chattering people. Chloe, the previous owner’s daughter, spotted us. She dashed over with welcomes and apologies for the mess. There was no need; we had turned up unannounced.
Word soon spread, and farmers, none of whom spoke English, turned up with gifts and bonhomie, introducing themselves as our neighbours. With our rudimentary French, it was a job to keep up with the strong accent.
Monsieur LeBrun offered us a crate of ruby-red apples. Chloe smiled affectionately, saying that he grew the best apples in France. She translated for monsieur, who roared with laughter, “Ooh Madame Chloe, tu as me faire gonfler les chevilles!”
I had no idea what he’d said, so asked Chloe for a translation.
“I love that man,” she giggled as we waved him off. “He said my words would make his ankles swell.”
“Yes, this a famous phrase in France, Avoir les chevilles qui enflent. It is, I think, a bit like the English say, to make the head the swelling?”
Big-headed, of course!
And that’s how my interest in French idioms started. As with many expressions, this one has an interesting back story. The most recent explanation comes from the courtiers of Louis XIV, who were afforded the privilege of adding red heels to their shoes in the style of their king.
To ensure their honour was easily seen, some adjusted their shoes to show their red heels better. It was a fine idea in theory, but one which tended to swell their ankles. So much for vanity!
I found this explanation so appealing that I dug around for other quirky French phrases. Here are some of my favourites.
Entre chien et loup. This translates as ‘between dog and wolf’, but the actual meaning is ‘dusk’. The expression, dating from the 13th century, refers to the end of the day. I thought it might signify that period when a dog returns home, and a wolf begins his nightly prowls, but I was wrong. The meaning refers to visibility. At dusk, the light is dim, making it hard to distinguish a dog from a wolf. While the explanation made sense to me, this next one didn’t at all.
Complaints of ‘Il me court sur le haricot!’ translates as ‘He’s running on my bean!’ has nothing to do with cultivating vegetables. This is a French way of saying, ‘He’s getting on my nerves.’ Nonplussed? I was.
The expression has several threads. Though not so popular these days, it has been around since the 16th century. ‘Running someone’ was then a popular phrase meaning to annoy. Later, in the 19th century, the verb ‘haricoter’ meant to haggle over trivialities, to annoy. It described a petty person in business who gets on one’s nerves. And there’s more.
The word ‘haricot’, ‘bean’ is an early slang word for toe. Theories differ here. One being that running on one’s toes eventually becomes exasperating. Combine the lot, and the idiom begins to make sense.
Les doigts dans le nez is one of my favourites. It means ‘fingers in the nose’, ‘effortless’, ‘a walk in the park’. The expression is thought to have developed as a colloquialism in the horse racing industry around 1910.
It was the kind of remark a commentator might make to describe how simple it was for the jockey to win. Instead of focusing on the race, he had time to stick his fingers in his nose like a cheeky child. Easy peasy!
Then we have Faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties, with a literal meaning of, ‘Don’t push Granny into the nettles!’. Poor Grandma, the mind boggles. It is likely to be a 20th century phrase, meaning, ‘Don’t push it!’, or ‘Don’t overstep the mark’.
Here’s one I completely misunderstood. ‘D’avoir les dents longues’ translates as ‘To have long teeth’. I assumed the English equivalent would be ‘getting long in the tooth’, a slang description used for an ageing person. Far from it. The idiom means ‘to have great drive’ or ‘strong ambition’.
The phrase emerged in the 14th century where the expression meant ‘to be hungry’, hungry for power. As for teeth, they are considered a symbol of strength (who knew?). There are lots of similar phrases, and this is my favourite. ‘Avoir les dents qui rayent le parquet’ means ‘To have teeth [so long] that they are scratching the floor’. Now that’s seriously ambitious!
‘Avoir le cafard’ left me clueless. The saying translates as ‘to have the cockroach’, though it actually means to feel miserable or depressed as in ‘I’m feeling down’. The origins are derived from Kafir Arabic, where the word ‘cockroach’ appeared in the 16th century dictionary to describe traitors or those without faith or morality.
Through time, the word came to be associated with negativity, and it is thought that poet Charles Baudelaire developed the expression in 1857 when writing Les Fleurs du Mal. The poems deal with decadence, focusing on suffering and its relationship to the original sin, disgust toward evil and oneself, obsession with death, and aspirations toward an ideal world.
S’occuper de ses oignons! with its literal translation, ‘to take care of one’s onions’, sounds like a classic gardener’s expression, which is partly correct.
The saying means ‘to mind your own business’, and has explanations dating to the early 20th century. I was surprised to learn that ‘onions’ in this context was a slang word for buttocks or feet during this period. Strange, but true.
Another historical theory does have a link to the vegetable. In central France, women were permitted to cultivate onions in a corner of the garden to earn their own money. Menfolk who considered their wives overly nosey were told to ‘Mind your onions’!
If someone bellows ‘La vache!’ during a conversation, don’t worry, you’re not about to be run down by a cow. With a literal meaning of ‘The cow!’ this phrase is akin to the English exclamation of ‘Oh God!’, ‘Holy cow!’.
The saying is thought to date back to the 17th century. Farmers would bring a cow into town to demonstrate to villagers that the milk they were selling was fresh. The townspeople would cry out ‘La vache!’ upon sighting the milk. From this, the cry evolved to become a general expression of surprise.
So there we are. Like English, the French language is richly embroidered with expressions, many of which immediately make sense, while others need explanation. For me, learning how the phrases evolved is often as interesting as the words themselves.
If you’d like to find out more about French idioms, have a look at some of the links below. I used several for this blog.
In the meantime, please don’t punch your sweetheart on the nose if they call you ‘ma puce’ (my flea). The term is one of endearment, likely to have come from historical times when removing fleas from one another was a pleasant and sometimes intimate pastime.
Oh, and if your French pal says that you’re ‘copains comme cochons’, don’t worry, s/he isn’t accusing you of being like a pig. This is a French way of saying ‘great friends’ or ‘bosom buddies’!